Secretary of Privatization

For almost 16 years, across two administrations of different parties, America’s teachers have watched federal education officials embrace destructive policies.  President George W. Bush ushered in the era of test and punishment based accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act.  President Barack Obama entered office with promises of relief from unrealistic expectations and punitive incentives – only to double down on testing’s importance by favoring value-added teacher evaluations and to promote privatization through the charter school sector which has increasingly placed portions of our educational commons into hands avoiding public oversight.  With a Secretary of Education under President Obama who declared that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” to happen to New Orleans schools because the recovery turned the entire city over to privately managed charters, teachers could be forgiven for wondering how anything could get worse regardless of who won the election this month.

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After floating a raft of names – from former rival and now designated Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson to New York City charter magnate Eva Moskowitz to former Washington D.C. School Chancellor and Patron Saint of Firing Teachers  Michelle Rhee to actually qualified school choice advocate and Hoover Institute Fellow Dr. Williamson Evers – Donald Trump has settled upon Michigan billionaire and school privatization zealot Betsy DeVos as his nominee for Secretary of Education.  Friends have asked me directly what I think about this pick, and I have frankly responded that if Ms. DeVos can accomplish for the nation’s schools what she has manage to do in Michigan by leveraging her fortune to buy her desired results, then we are well and truly screwed.  Ms. DeVos has never attended a public school, never sent her children to a public school, never studied education at any level, never taught a day in her life.  What she does bring to the post is an unparalleled zeal for turning as much of our public schools as possible over to unregulated hands and for sending as much public school money as possible to private and religious institutions.  With her appointment, the Trump administration’s priorities for our nation’s schools are made crystal clear: to hell with quality, to hell with equity, to hell with everything except privatization.

As early as 2011, Betsy DeVos was well recognized as an influential if stealthy advocate for school choice, especially in the form of vouchers.  Such efforts are always couched in terms that emphasize empowering parents and using competition to make all schools better, but the agenda has little to do with excellent education for all and much more to do with taking the nation’s $600 billion school budget and getting it into private hands.  Having failed in 2000 to convince Michigan voters to institute vouchers, DeVos altered strategy and backed legislators and bills that favored vouchers and privatization in various states.  Forming All Children Matter in 2003, DeVos quickly spent $7.6 million in the first year to get electoral results in favor of privatization.  If you’ve ever heard a conservative politician use the term “government schools” instead of “public schools,” you have Betsy DeVos and her husband (and Amway fortune heir) Dick to thank for it.  It turns out that slapping the label “government” on any publicly funded good is an effective way to bend public opinion against it.

The DeVos family was also deeply involved in repackaging vouchers from their original racist origin as a way to get white children out of desegregation and into an “only hope”for urban children “trapped” in “failing schools.”  The problem with that strategy is that with years of evidence in from voucher programs like Milwaukee there simply isn’t evidence that vouchers do very much for their alleged beneficiaries – although they do manage to get public money into private hands fairly well. In fact, in Milwaukee, students receiving vouchers performed worse than their counterparts in the city’s public schools.  The DeVos affinity for vouchers is not limited to secular institutions, and, they have deep and lasting ties to conservative Christian activists who see secular public education as an out and out enemy that has to be ended.  Betsy DeVos has served on the board of the Acton Institute which has featured events by Christian Dominionist Gary North who is on record writing, without irony: “So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

The DeVos record in her home base of Michigan should be on great concern to those who see public education as a public good that should not be turned over to profiteers.  Her efforts in Michigan and nationally aim to influence policies steering as much money as is possible away from fully public schools and into “competition” in the form of charters.  The Michigan experiment has been especially woeful for public education as the state’s charter sector is stupendously unregulated and an eye-watering 80% of charter schools are run by for-profit management corporations that don’t even try to hide that they are self dealing.  The Detroit Free Press reported in August that the state is sending $1 billion in tax payers’ money to charter schools but cannot be bothered to hold them accountable for much of anything:

Wasteful spending and double-dipping. Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders. Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records. No state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them.

And a record number of charter schools run by for-profit companies that rake in taxpayer money and refuse to detail how they spend it, saying they’re private and not subject to disclosure laws. Michigan leads the nation in schools run by for-profits.

According to The New York Times, a 2010 law backed by a DeVos funded group pushed to expand charters, but DeVos’ group also blocked provisions that would have prevented failing charters from expanding and replicating.  Since that law passed, the number of charters in Michigan that are among the state’s lowest performing schools has doubled.  Another story in the Times illustrates the chaos this has unleashed upon students and families in Detroit in the name of “empowering” them with choice.  Decades into the charter school experiment and more than a decade into the DeVos influenced school landscape, Detroit has 30,000 more school seats than it needs and schools go into heated competition to fill those seats in time to get state money determined by headcount.  Charter school seats are concentrated near downtown while more impoverished neighborhoods with more school aged children have fewer schools – requiring those seeking choice to travel significant distances in a city of 140 square miles.  Many charter operators get around the requirements to have open lotteries by layering the application process with burdensome paperwork, unusual enrollment periods, or by advertising in sources they know the city’s most impoverished families do not read.  The result is that a great many families seeking charter seats end up at poorly run schools in Michigan’s unregulated environment and end up switching schools multiple times in the elementary years — an environment that Tonya Allen, President of the Skillman Foundation, compared to “The Hunger Games” for schools.

Perhaps so much disruption would be deemed worthwhile if Michigan had anything of merit to show for it.  Unfortunately, such merit is hard to see even after so many years of DeVos favored school choice policies.  Consider Michigan’s 8th grade results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both mathematics and reading.  In math, Michigan’s students in 2015 showed no improvement at all over students from 2000, and while the gap between White and Black students did narrow from 45 points in 2000 to 35 points in 2015, the gap between students in poverty and student not in poverty was essentially unchanged in the same period.  Meanwhile, 8th grade reading scores were even worse – with 8th graders in 2015 also performing no better overall than in 2000, but with the gap between Black and White students remaining unchanged in that time and the gap between students in poverty and students not in poverty growing from 13 points to 23 points. The lack of quality control and oversight in Detroit is so bad that even national philanthropists eager to promote school choice and charters routinely pass over the Motor City.

Policies and politicians favored by Betsy DeVos and backed by her considerable resources have unleashed chaos in Michigan schools, leading to a charter school environment that even some charter school boosters find difficult to justify.  And the result of her efforts since the the early 2000s is a school system that isn’t actually performing any better than before she managed to leverage her fortune in favor of unregulated choice and charter school proliferation.  No wonder then that, although she has her fans among pro-privatizing politicians like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, she is also regarded as highly dangerous from others in her home state.  The President of Michigan’s state board of education said, “It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, and hand-feeding it schoolchildren….Devos’ agenda is to break the public education system, not educate kids, and replace it with a for-profit model.”  A Democratic state senator from Deerborn Heights added, “The fact that she now is going to have a platform to do that on a national level should be of great concern to everyone in this country.”

If confirmed as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos will almost certainly be in charge of whatever emerges from Donald Trump’s promise to allocate $20 billion to expand school choice in the form of charter schools and voucher plans.  In his announcement of the plan, Trump even used DeVos favored code language by referencing students trapped in “failing government schools,”  and he thanked Ron Packard, the CEO of the for-profit charter company that runs the failing charter school that served as the backdrop for his speech. It is almost impossible to imagine optics that better sum up Betsy DeVos’ record on education: coded language used to demean our educational commons, a for profit charter management company, and a school that is failing to improve students’ measured performance.  In fact, the only person in the story likely to be doing very well is Mr. Packard himself who used to pull in a salary of $5 million to run the K12 Inc. family of for profit virtual charter schools (with an educational record so dubious that the NCAA refuses to accept credits from the schools) and whose Pansophic Learning is now the largest for profit operator of charter schools in Ohio.  Secretary designate DeVos must love it.

Cynics – and even some optimists – might doubt just how much damage a DeVos led Department of Education could inflict.  After all, the nation spends over $600 billion annually on public education, but only 9% of that is federally funded which is why Trump’s voucher and choice proposal assumes, very optimistically, that states will kick in over $100 billion additionally over the $20 billion from the federal government.  The problem with this view is that while the federal government does not foot a lot of education money, it can unleash a hell of a lot of chaos with the money it does spend via incentives and regulation.  For example, Title 1 funds, intended for schools serving high percentages of economically disadvantaged students, reached 56,000 schools serving 21 million students in 2009-2010.  Luke Messer, a Republican Congressman from Indiana who is a friend of Mike Pence and who founded the Congressional School Choice Caucus already suggested that some or all of the money for Trump’s school choice program could come from the $15 billion the federal government spends on Title I.  Grabbing money intended to help public schools that serve the nation’s most needy children and turning it into an uncontrolled experiment in vouchers and unregulated charter schools is exactly the kind of project Betsy DeVos would relish.  And even if she only got her hands on a fraction of that sum, nobody should forget the degree of chaos Arne Duncan managed with only $4 billion in Race to the Top funds at his disposal.

In the end, Ms. DeVos may be frustrated less by available funds and a willing Congress than by her own preference for pulling strings outside the limelight.  As far back as 1997, she openly admitted that she donated money to Republican politicians in full expectation of getting a return on her investment:  “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”  But it is  a lot easier to buy the fealty of selected politicians and to hand them legislation to pass into law and to do so from the wings than the try to lead a national effort to convince Americans to gut their public schools.  Despite 30 years of a relentless school failure narrative, Americans tend to rate their local school systems fairly highly, and parents with at least one child in school rate them higher still.  If Betsy DeVos is going to leverage the promised money for school choice into substantial change, she will have to do something she has never really done – step into the sunlight and talk to us regular folks about why we should gamble our children on her ideas that have such a remarkably poor record.

I doubt that she has the skill set to spread her ideas to America’s suburban schools, but if Congress actually does give her a free hand with Title I, she will have the power to deal great harm to America’s poorest children.  As Secretary of Privatization, she can turn many more of our urban schools into profit centers that enrich private interests far more efficiently than they care about the children within them.  Expect more people like Ron Packard to cash in while our nation’s children and teachers suffer.

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I told you suckers what I was about, didn’t I?

 

 

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Corruption, Drumpf, Funding, NCLB, politics, School Choice

Education Policy 2017: Trumpian Levels of Uncertainty

With the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency (I will take a long time to get used to typing that), education policy until at least January 2021 is a giant question mark.  Secretary Clinton’s education policy was fairly easy to predict – she’d attempt to chart a “middle course” between the full embrace of corporate reform by President Obama and the concerns of her union supporters and close confidants like AFT President Randi Weingarten.  She’d have softened the test and punishment aspects of federal education policy while continuing to support standards and testing in general, and she’d try to pivot the charter school debate into more oversight for the sector as a whole and narrowing federal support to co-called “high quality” charter schools.  That’s hardly my ideal, but at least it would have been highly predictable territory and her credentials as someone genuinely interested in policy meant that she’d have approached education with a degree of thoughtfulness that I’d have appreciated.

President Trump?  Not so much.

The only thing guaranteed by Donald Trump is something that I will deeply regret and his own preening self-regard.  Make no mistake:  education policy in the Trump Administration will favor privatization and be hostile to unionized teachers.  The evidence for this is fairly clear in his choice of Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his Vice President.  Governor Pence made education reform a central feature of his administration, and the results have not been especially pretty.  Pence’s administration made a hard charge for additional charter school funding, although he did increase oversight in the sector.  He also pushed to allow more public funds to go to vouchers for private schools, and he “rejected” the Common Core standards, only to have Indiana develop its own that look remarkably like the Common Core standards along with an Indiana specific standardized test that costs far more than the federally backed PARCC and SBAC exams.  Even if Mr. Pence does not have much say in federal education policy (his real passions in government seem far more related to banning abortion and making life hell for LGBTQ people), Trump surrogate Donald Trump Jr. used his July convention speech to trash public education in the United States without regard for facts or nuance, and when Donald Trump spoke on education he focused mostly on bashing the Common Core Standards and emphasizing school choice as curative.

Suffice to say: Education policy in the Trump administration will come down to as much privatization as they can squeeze in, aided by a Congress that is wired to the bone to hate teacher unions and to believe that the free market can do anything.  People who loathe the Common Core standards will be relieved to see an administration that is hostile to them, but they certainly cannot expect any support on keeping public education PUBLIC, and teachers in unionized states can expect Friedrich’s copycat suits to work their way back into the federal courts.

But exactly HOW all of this comes about and exactly how SERIOUS Mr. Trump is about his education policy is a gargantuan question mark.  If you do not believe me, consider the two known names on his list to become Secretary of Education:  The first is Dr. Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow on education issues for the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, a former assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration, and a former holder of education appointments under California Governors Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Dr.  Evers has a libertarian background and his education priorities are neatly aligned with the new administration:  against the Common Core standards and in favor of school choice.  However, it is also undeniable that he would bring genuine policy experience and experience in both state and federal level education policy.  He has a doctorate in political science from Stanford University and has spent decades writing and researching education policy as well as providing advice to governments on that issue.  While I may not agree with all of his priorities, there is no reason to doubt that the Department of Education under his watch would be actually managed.

President-elect Trump’s OTHER top choice to head the Department of Education?  Retired pediatric neurosurgeon and former rival for the Republican nomination Dr. Ben Carson.  I did not just mistype that.  Dr. Carson is obviously an intelligent and talented man in his chosen field – nobody rises to the level that he did in a field like that without having truly prodigious skills.  However, he has absolutely zero qualifications in education, and when he spoke on education issues during the primaries, he tended to say bizarre and frightening things, such as his idea that the Department of Education should cut off federal funds to colleges and universities “guilty” of promoting “extreme bias.”  Dr. Carson is also well known for saying lots of things that make no factual or historic sense, from his assertion that the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built as granaries, to his belief that being gay is a choice, because prison, to his belief that evolution is the literal work of Satan, to his belief that there is no “war on women” but there may be a “war on what’s inside of women” – presumably he meant to reference fetuses, but considering how many organs are inside a human body, it wasn’t precisely clear.

So these are our apparent choices for Secretary of Education during a Trump administration:  One is a libertarian/conservative research fellow with a doctorate in political science, decades of experience in education policy, and who has spent considerable time in both state and federal education policy circles.  One is a retired surgeon with no relevant experience whatsoever, who has a history of saying plainly false or borderline deranged things on a host of topics he doesn’t understand, and who thinks the federal Department of Education should spend its time looking for cases of liberal bias in higher education and then slashing funding.  One will pursue policies that promote school choice and privatization but will also administer the department with an actual understanding of how the system operates.  One will probably operate the department with all of the discipline of Donald Trump campaign rally, complete with bizarre stream of consciousness and counterfactual statements and no discernible direction at all.  One will be a person whose policies and practices we can confront and counter based upon evidence and something resembling logical discourse.  One will essentially dare us to understand a single blessed word that comes out of his mouth.

The kicker?  We really have no idea which one we are going to get.  If Mike Pence has any real input in this administration, we will probably get Dr. Evers.  If Mr. Trump follows his gut and flare for showmanship, we probably get Dr. Carson.  This is education beginning in 2017.  May G-d have mercy on us all.

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Filed under charter schools, politics, schools, standards, Unions

Repairing Our Civic Discourse – Teachers’ Role

When I woke up on November 9th, I had to explain to my children, aged 7 and 9, that Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States.  They cried.  They cried because they know, at most, a fraction of the horrible things he has said in his campaign and that was enough to convince them that he should not be President.  They cried because although they are young, they believe that America is a country for everyone and that Donald Trump has attacked that ideal.  They cried because they have friends and people they care about who are terrified that a Trump administration will break apart their families.  They cried because we have taught them to value kindness and respect and to abhor bullies.

I cried with them and told them that we would always protect them and that our job now is to make certain if our new President tries to hurt anyone that we protect them.  My children are fortunate, though – their fear quickly subsided probably because they have never personally experienced the injustices promised by the incoming administration, and because as children of white, professional parents they are inclined to believe that they have strength in our society.  Friends of mine who teach in schools with minority, immigrant, and Muslim children had much harder work trying to allay their students’ genuine apprehension about what might be coming.  And my friends are not alone in New York City or elsewhere for that matter.  A teacher in Chicago set up this message for students:

As they are almost always called upon to do, teachers this week have been seeking ways to help anxious and shocked students to cope with circumstances that are both beyond their control and threatening to their well being.  I do not need to reiterate the ways in which a Trump Presidency is poised to harm millions of our students – his campaign promises make that crystal clear as does the bigoted and inflammatory rhetoric with which he made those promises.  His enablers assure us that he intends to be the President for “all” Americans, but many of his supporters appear to have very clear ideas of what his victory means, so even if President Trump takes a softer stance than candidate Trump, he has unleashed some of the ugliest elements of our society and putting that back in the bottle will be an arduous and uncertain task:

While America’s teachers are helping students who fear President Trump, there is also another role for them and for our schools: helping to repair a civic discourse badly damaged by bull dozed norms and lack of mutual understanding typified by the President-elect’s campaign.  Something that was already evident became crystal clear on election night:  Americans do not understand each other very well.  As the returns came in, it was obvious that Donald Trump had successfully energized a demographic that wasn’t weighted properly in the polls because they are not part of most pollsters “likely voter” model — rural whites voted for him in unprecedented numbers, erasing Secretary Clinton’s strengths with urban and wealthier suburban voters.  The election was apparently as much an expression of their grievances at a political system that seeks their vote every few years and then fails to deliver very much as it was an expression of support for Mr. Trump’s most vile rhetoric.  While a discernible portion of his vote did come from genuinely horrible people, quite a lot of it came from a demographic that feels forgotten by our political system.

These voters are not exactly wrong (although I would argue that Mr. Trump is entirely the wrong vehicle – even a dangerous vehicle – for their frustration).  The trends on what has happened to the working class in America has been stark for decades.  Pundits love to talk about the “college wage premium” – the gain in lifetime earnings with a college degree, and that phenomenon is real enough.  However, since the 1980s, the “increase” in that premium has not come because of rising wages for college graduates so much as it has come from the collapse of wages for those without degrees:

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While both the rural and urban poor have suffered under these trends, Mr. Trump directly appealed to working class whites by blaming globalization and free trade pacts for their plights, an appeal that resonates far more with lower income Americans than with the middle and upper class.  It would be curious to see if Mr. Trump’s economic populism would have resonated more with the urban poor if he had not wrapped it in so many layers of racism, nativism, and other bigotry.

It is also evident that Americans do not actually see how people in different economic circumstances live.  Residential Income Segregation has been rising for decades, so not only do the urban and rural populations not live together, but also people live separately based upon their income.  Wealthy and middle class city dwellers do not live in similar neighborhoods, and wherever you live, you are increasingly likely to live in an area where most of the other people share your economic circumstances.  The consequences of this are destructive.  It is very difficult for the wealthy and upper middle class, constituencies heavily courted by typical politics, to understand much about the lives of those in urban and rural poverty.  Meanwhile, the urban and rural poor, while separated by geography, history, and a presumed cultural divide, certainly vote very differently but actually may have far more in common with each other than is often assumed.  That point is driven home by Saturday Night Live’s pre-election episode of “Black Jeopardy” where Tom Hanks played Doug, a rural Donald Trump supporter whose sentiments often aligned with the other contestants, up until the sketch ends with a deflected confrontation on “Lives that Matter” and the racism that blinds many white Americans like Doug to African American’s shared concerns about law enforcement and justice in America:

None of this is meant to excuse the willingness of Donald Trump’s voters to overlook and even excuse his abhorrent statements about women and minorities, nor is it meant to excuse the behavior of a disturbing number of his supporters who have taken his victory as a signal to unleash hate at groups singled out by his campaign.  And it certainly does not change the real evidence that Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters are animated by bigotry.  But it does complicate my understanding of this phenomenon – some of our barriers to understanding each other in America are real, created by geography and lack of shared experiences.  But some of those barriers are of our own making, created by policies that reject integration and created by a lack of willingness to consider others’ experiences as valid when we have no similar frame of reference.  The result of which is an inability to see our similarities.  Of course, this is too simple:  our mutual blindness is made far more complex by modern media that allows people to cocoon themselves in information bubbles and never hear opposing views.

What, then, is the proper role for school in these problems?  It is a tricky one to navigate because while it is not proper for school to require certain political views from students, it is absolutely within school’s historic mission to promote civics and civic-mindedness.  Almost 20 years ago, David Tyack put it this way:

Today, some people are talking about the broader democratic purposes of schooling. Deborah Meier (1991) puts the issue well: “While public education may be useful as an industrial policy, it is essential to healthy life in a democracy” (p. 270). Mike Rose (1996) shows in Possible Lives that in communities and schools across the nation, teachers, students, and parents are practicing John Dewey’s dream of democracy in education and education in democracy. Rose finds that there is a far richer sense of educational purpose than we generally hear about in policy talk on the national level.

Education as essential to Democracy and as a form of Democracy itself goes back to the origins of the common school movement.  Consider Horace Mann’s justification of common schools in the life of a democratic society:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

Mann promoted education that would inspire all not only to vote, but also to vote in a manner that promoted the common good and which reflected sound judgement.  The long festering divisions in our civic life today stand in the way of that, but schools and teachers have tools at their disposal to help students reach for a higher civic ideal.

The first obvious tool is a renewed commitment to information literacy and critical thinking – far beyond the stultifying confines of “critical thinking” curricula aimed at passing a standardized test.  Our heavy emphasis on tested subjects and on preparing students to demonstrate their competency in the narrow skill bands of standardized testing has already damaged the critical thinking skills of one generation of students.  We need to do a lot better, especially in an age where media consumption in new forms requires the sharp critical literacy skills.  Programs like “Deliberating in a Democracy” provide additional space to engage students in critical thinking around core issues in society and internationally.  We need more spaces like this in our curriculum.

Beyond critical thinking, however, is using our curricula to assist all students’ comprehension of experiences beyond their own.  We have nibbled at the edges of this for a long time.  The English curriculum, for example, is an ideal place for literature that expands students’ understanding of others, although for far too long, we’ve merely supplemented the curriculum with a few representatives of lives outside of the majority — it is past time to bring Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan some company.  Beyond the book list in English, however, are opportunities to promote contact and dialog among students of many different backgrounds.  Take the premise of the “Black Jeopardy” skit with Tom Hanks and consider what might be different if students with more in common than they know could discuss and listen to each other?  In many locales, it would not be difficult to arrange face to face meetings and discussions among urban, suburban, and rural school students, and technology could facilitate “Sister Schools” arrangements where distances are more difficult.  Research suggests that fairly simple exercises in empathy can reduce racist sentiment – the possibilities of schools promoting genuine contact and discussion among students whose lives are separated by geography and experience seem very hopeful.

We have to think about this.  Promoting civic mindedness is a core function of public education, and it is clearly one that needs our attention.  Too many of our children are watching to see if we adults are interested in making things better.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Drumpf, Media, politics, racism, Social Justice, teaching

November 8th, 2016 – Your Students are Watching You

I can hardly blame any teachers who hesitate to vote for the Democratic nominee this year.  One obvious reason is that many teachers are themselves Republicans and hesitate to vote for any Democratic nominee.  Another is that many teachers, with cause, are wary of many Democratic politicians who have embraced the agenda of school privatization with a vigor that was hardly conceivable twenty years ago.  In the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, Democrats such as Andrew Cuomo of New York and Rahm Emanuel of Chicago have been passionate architects of school closings, have embraced blame-the-teachers-first evaluation and retention policies, and have promoted school privatization that undermines truly public schools.  While I have argued that Secretary Hillary Clinton has signaled willingness to pivot from these policies in her administration, I cannot blame teachers who hesitate in the wake of a pair of two term Presidents, one Republican and one Democratic, both of whom embraced awful education policies.

But I address this blog to teachers who are contemplating what I find unthinkable – casting a ballot for Donald Trump.  I call it unthinkable because I am starting from a premise that teachers care about their students and want what is best for them.  For every single one of your students, regardless of who they are and who their families are, there is something horrible at the core of what Donald Trump’s continued domination of the national landscape would mean.  While I find his policies – such as they are – harmful and nearly farcical, what is even more disturbing to me as an educator would be giving him four years in the most visible and influential office in the nation where he would have a guaranteed national audience for the unending sexism and bigotry that has become the lingua franca of his campaign.  As a teacher, you should be able to look all of your students in the eye and say that your vote has helped them.  I do not believe you can do that if you vote for Donald Trump.

Half of your students are girls and young women.  What could you possibly say to them that justifies a vote for Donald Trump?  That it does not matter if the President of the United States of America is a man with a decades long record of belittling women in public mostly because of how they lookThat it does not matter if the President of the United States is a man who routinely barged in on partially dressed teen aged beauty pageant contestantsThat it does not matter if the President of the United States has a record of making sexually suggestive comments to under-aged women?   That it does not matter if the President of the United States is a man who routinely relates to women only in terms of their sexual desirabilityThat it does not matter if the President of the United States is a man who bragged about his ability to get away with sexual assault and then tried to brush it off as “locker room talk”?

I challenge any teacher looking a classroom full of girls and young women who deserve to be seen as complete human beings and to be evaluated on the basis of their accomplishments – and to explain how the President of the United States can be a man who speaks and acts like this.  For that matter, I challenge any teacher to look a the boys and young men in their classrooms who deserve to be taught to respect all people and say that electing a man with such pervasive and obvious misogyny is okay.

You have students with disabilities in your classroom.  Donald Trump famously mocked a reporter, a reporter he knew reasonably well, in an effort to deflect criticism of his false claims about Muslims celebrating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  When called on his revolting display making fun of the man’s physical disability, he basically lied about it.  The incident reveals starkly how little regard Donald Trump has for either the truth or for affirming the dignity of people with disabilities.  As a teacher, could you honestly tell your students with disabilities that it does not matter if the President of the United States shows so little care for their dignity?

Donald Trump as President threatens harm to other students in your classrooms as well.  While 1.4% of U.S. school children are themselves undocumented immigrants, millions of school children who are United States citizens have at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant.  Donald Trump’s signature policy proposals on immigration would cause them unspeakable harm.  While Muslims remain a small percentage of Americans, they and their children are under staggering pressure due to the Republican nominee.  Almost two thirds of American Muslim adults, who are largely middle class and mainstream in beliefs, are foreign born, which means that their families overseas would be barred from visiting under Donald Trump’s various plans to bar Muslims from entering the U.S.  Donald Trump has also called for a national “stop and frisk” policy for police as part of his “law and order” campaign pledge.  This would be an unmitigated disaster for African American and Latino students, especially African American and Latino young men.  “Stop and Frisk” in New York City was an abject failure of a policy that could only justify itself by coinciding with nationwide decline in crime whose reasons are multi-faceted and complex.  At its height in 2011, “stop and frisk” policing stopped mostly African American (53%) and Latino (34%) New Yorkers a total of 685,724 times.  88% of those stopped were entirely innocent of doing anything that was even worthy of a ticket, let alone doing anything criminal.  The only thing a national stop and frisk policy would encourage is the ongoing and continuous violation of the rights of young African American and Latino men.  Could you, as a teacher, look at your students of color, who are children of immigrants, and who are Muslim and say that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote that will protect and respect them?

Beyond the actual harm caused by these policies, is the harm caused by the man himself and the careless manner by which he espouses bigotry against Muslims, other minorities, and immigrants.  Hate speech is on the rise, and there is a direct line between Donald Trump’s willingness to entertain practically every form of prejudice imaginable and this phenomenon.  The Southern Poverty Law Center has written about a “Trump effect” in our schools where Muslims and immigrant children are facing increased bullying in school.  Donald Trump’s campaign has also given form and purpose to the “alt right,” a previously amorphous collection of white supremacists and anti-Semites who  have identified a champion in Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and promises and believe that they can muscle their way into the American mainstream through him.  Millions of young people are watching this campaign and forming their ideas about what is and is not acceptable in American democracy through the first Presidential campaign they have paid attention to in their lives.  What lessons are they learning that will serve the crucial values of Democracy and Pluralism through a candidate who embraces racial, religious, and national bigotry, who expresses those ideas with careless abandon, and who emboldens the sickest corners of our national character to think that their time has come?  Can you, as a teacher, vote for a man whose campaign rhetoric would earn him immediately detention in your school and whose worst followers target so many of your students with hate speech and harassment?

Teachers pledge to do a great deal more than to teach their students content and academic skills.  We are also caretakers of our students’ emotional and social development.  Every young person in your classroom is a sacred trust between parents and guardians and society through you and your colleagues.  Your job involves creating a small version of a pluralistic and welcoming society in the space of your classroom, a society where all students are welcomed and affirmed so that they can take risks and grow both intellectually and socially.  There is literally nothing in the Trump campaign or a potential Trump Presidency that is congruous with that trust.  In Donald Trump, we have a potential President whose language and behavior towards women, the disabled, ethnic and religious minorities, and immigrants would earn him immediate discipline from any teacher and principal worthy of the job.  As President, he would be an ongoing disaster to those of us who hope to foster an environment of care in our classrooms, and he would consistently demean those we are charged to uplift.  I challenge any teacher contemplating him for President to enter the voting and imagine the children in your classroom – if you could not explain your vote to them, think carefully about what that means.  Your students are watching to see what kind of a nation we really are.

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Filed under Drumpf, politics, racism, Social Justice

Can Teaching Survive as a Profession?

Education reform has finally gotten around to taking direct aim at teacher preparation.  On October 4th, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan published an “open letter” at Brookings to America’s university presidents and deans of education.  In it, he used “evidence” from a report from self appointed “teacher quality” watchdog, NCTQ, which claimed that America’s future teachers get a disproportionate degrees with honors to claim that our teacher preparation programs are too easy.  The NCTQ “study,” which follows their standard method of examining available materials gleaned from websites without ever visiting a campus, claimed that few programs offer enough rigor and grade subjectively.  On October 12th, Mr. Duncan’s successor, Secretary of Education John King, released long expected federal regulations for teacher preparation, the heart of which focus on reporting of program “success” in preparing successful teachers.  The transparency rules will require states to report program by program on:

  • Placement and retention rates of graduates in their first three years of teaching, including placement and retention in high-need schools;
  • Feedback from graduates and their employers on the effectiveness of program preparation;
  • Student learning outcomes measured by novice teachers’ student growth, teacher evaluation results, and/or another state-determined measure that is relevant to students’ outcomes, including academic performance, and meaningfully differentiates amongst teachers; and
  • Other program characteristics, including assurances that the program has specialized accreditation or graduates candidates with content and pedagogical knowledge, and quality clinical preparation, who have met rigorous exit requirements.

The bolded section obviously refers to student growth measures based upon standardized examinations, essentially requiring states to utilize value added measures or student growth percentiles and then pegging that to the “value added” of various teacher preparation programs.  “Meaningful” differentiation “amongst teachers” is obviously yet another “highly effective” to “ineffective” stack ranking system beloved by the Federal DOE.

Finally, on October 14th, the editorial board of The New York Times, weighed in with an editorial that hit on all of the familiar themes of recent education reform efforts:  Other nations “eclipse” our educational outcomes, our schools of education have no real standards, and they don’t prepare the “right” teachers to fit our need.  The board accepted without question the conclusions of NCTQ about teacher preparation and embraced the reporting of “multiple measures” of teacher preparation, especially the tying of value added on standardized test scores back to the supposed quality of teacher preparation.  While the regulations leave the choice of “growth measures” up to the states, it is obvious that such language inherently means value added based on standardized test scores as those systems are the only ones actually in place.  This is not unlike how Arne Duncan did not “force” state competing for Race to to the Top grants to adopt the Core Curriculum Content Standards, but he actually did by requiring them to adopt “College and Career Readiness Standards” which, to the surprise of nobody, only existed in any form in CCSS.

Let me offer a concession at this point:  Teacher preparation in America could certainly do a better job.  It is common among teachers to express that their teacher preparation was inadequate and disconnected from their actual work teaching, and this complaint is hardly new.  Tying what is learned in university classrooms to elementary and secondary classrooms is both difficult and often tenuous.  Even programs that constantly include extensive work in classrooms throughout preparation struggle with the reality that few experiences can adequately simulate the full responsibilities of teaching day in and day out, and adapting to that reality while keeping a clear focus on what students are learning is one of the most difficult things anyone ever teaches.

And the field of teacher preparation is certainly aware of this.  I have written before that efforts to improve the quality of teacher education in the country are hardly new, and numerous reports and agencies have both proposed and implemented change over the past 30 years.  Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, we have had influential reports from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and The Holmes Group.  Thinkers like John Goodlad have seriously challenged how we see the relationship between university based teacher preparation and practitioners in the field, and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future issued its own report highlighting innovations to more strongly connect theory and practice as well as universities and P-12 classrooms.  These ideas have been worked into influential standards and accreditation bodies such as the National Council on the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and its successor, The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) – which guide the preparation of teachers in more than 700 institutions across the country.

But can teacher preparation – and by extension, the teaching profession – survive this next round of attention from federal regulators and reform advocates?

There can be no doubt that teaching and teachers are suffering today.  A recent article in The Atlantic reviewed the various forms of stress that have had demonstrable impact upon teachers, and it tied that stress to growing concern over high attrition rates caused by on the job dissatisfaction.  Further, the pipeline of willing teachers has contracted dramatically in recent years, as much as 35% with enrollments in teacher preparation programs falling from 691,000 to 451,000 in only 5 years.  Reasons for this tightening supply at a time of high demand vary, but it cannot be disputed that it is increasingly difficult to replace qualified teachers with qualified new teachers.

The transparency portion of the federal regulations seems perfectly poised to make this worse.  Regulators and reformers insist that they want the best and the brightest to enter teaching through programs with high entry standards and a track record of graduating successful teachers.  But they wish to measure this by tracking the value added on standardized tests of program graduates, a process fraught with conceptual difficulties such as the incredible instability of such ratings, where teachers in the very top of value-added in one year can find themselves moving from one level to the next over subsequent years.  This is yet another incentive to reduce the breadth of the curriculum to tested subjects, to produce teachers who can enact scripted lessons aimed at high test performance, and to discourage graduates from serving any urban population other than those in no-excuses charter schools, schools that do not emphasize teaching as a life long commitment.

Of course, nobody openly cops to wanting to wreck teaching as a profession (with the possible exception of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who cannot seem to pick apart his ire at New Jersey’s teacher union from New Jersey’s teachers).  However, actions, regardless of intentions, have reshaped teachers’ work for the worse, and if the profession is to survive as a profession serious changes are necessary.  Some of the most obvious threats:

  1. Attrition: Experienced teachers are better at their work than rank novices.  While advocates like Teacher for America’s Wendy Kopp claim that the “best” schools can develop new teachers into very effective teachers in only a year or two, that is based heavily on a charter model of scripted lessons aimed at test performance.  Although teachers develop rapidly in their very first years in the classroom, that improvement continues far past that point not only in test-based measures, but also in areas like lower student absenteeism and improved classroom discipline.  Findings that we are losing teachers at a rate of 8% a year – and only a third of that due to retirement – should worry anyone concerned about the viability of the profession.  Teachers with little preparation leave at rates of two to three times higher than those with strong preparation, and teachers in our high poverty schools tend to leave more frequently. Loss of teachers with experience also harms novice teachers, who try to learn their work within schools that lack a depth of knowledge represented by experienced colleagues.
  2. Obsession with test based measures: It is disheartening to see that the Federal DOE remains gripped with its obsession on using standardized tests to root out ineffective teachers and, now, teacher preparation.  The reality is that these measures are poorly suited for the job.  Student Growth Percentiles are so tightly correlated to the poverty characteristics of schools that it is difficult to determine whether or not they measure teacher input at all.  Value-Added Models, although more statistically sophisticated, produce enormous error rates and simply cannot account for all of the factors that contribute to standardized test scores, leading to a recent New York State court case which called the evaluation system using VAMs “arbitrary and capricious.” Although the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act directly forbids the federal government from requiring growth measures in state evaluation rules, it is imminently clear that Secretary King intends to jump on whatever lever he can find to maintain them.  So long as this continues, teachers face continued pressure to narrow their curricula and schools face continued pressure to box teachers deeply in test preparation mode which is simply not the same thing as teaching and learning mode.
  3. Vanishing teacher autonomy: If teachers were treated as professionals, it would be self evident that they would have latitude in determining the needs of their students, designing instruction to meet those needs, implementing and adjusting that instruction, and assessing their success by a variety of means.  Such professional autonomy is at threat in the current policy environment where teachers strongly believe that testing policies have diminished their ability to make decisions.  Sadly, as Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania notes, micromanaging teaching and curriculum decisions may assist weaker teachers, but for good teachers it contributes to job dissatisfaction which contributes to turn over.  Scripted lessons and little decision making probably satisfies the teacher as young and crusading short term job model many reformers favor, but it plays havoc on our ability to retain a dedicated body of professional teachers.
  4. Attacks on teachers’ representatives: It drives education reformers nuts that teachers are represented by organizations modeled on trade unions.  The old line of attack on unions was that if teachers were professionals, they should have gradated careers like other highly educated professional workers, making unions less “necessary.”  Today, the attacks are more directly aimed at union representation itself and workplace protections, with lawsuits attacking the practice of tenure under the guise of violating students’ rights to excellent teachers.  Get rid of the due process procedures given to tenured teachers, the thinking goes, and bad teachers will be easily removed leading to better outcomes.  The flaws in this are manifest.  First, the most common arguments against tenure do not actually match what current research knows.  Second, if the existence of tenure itself were a problem for student achievement, we would expect wealthy suburban districts where teachers remain on the job longer than average to be suffering with the weight of tenured faculty failing to work hard.  Obviously, that is not the case because teacher attrition is much more detrimental to student achievement than tenure.  Finally, teachers are in an odd profession where their duties and ethical obligations require them to actually speak up against administrators who are harming students.  Peter Greene argues cogently that teachers need special protections in order to do their jobs properly: “It (lack of tenure protections) forces teachers to work under a chilling cloud where their best professional judgment, their desire to advocate for and help students, their ability to speak out and stand up are all smothered by people with the power to say, “Do as I tell you, or else.”  This is absolutely correct, and it is something the moguls and philanthropists funding much of the assault on teacher unions, who are used to work force operating in tight chains of command, simply do not grasp.
  5. Workplace struggles: Loss of autonomy and attacks on workplace protections contribute to what many in the profession see as a deteriorating situation in the workplace.  The American Federation of Teachers collaborated with the grassroots activist group Badass Teachers Association (BATs) for a first of its kind workplace survey with 30,000 teachers participating.  Although the results are not representative of a scientific sample of teachers, what was reported should give education policy makers serious pause for concern, especially from the perspective of treating teachers as professionals.  45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own.  43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices.  Worse, nearly a third of respondents reported experiencing bullying or intimidation in the workplace, and nearly half said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point in their careers.  We know very well that teachers leave their jobs, especially in high poverty schools, when working conditions fail to foster collegiality among teachers and effective, supportive leadership among administrators.  Poor working conditions coupled with attacks on teachers’ existing protections can only contribute to our attrition problem
  6. A strangled supply line: While Arne Duncan is lamenting that teacher preparation programs are too easy, policy makers in various states are continuing to increase requirements for entry into such programs.  In New Jersey, for example, policy makers mandated that nobody can enter a teacher preparation program unless he or she is among the top third of standardized test takers entering college.  Once enrolled, he or she must maintain a GPA of 3.0 and complete both an education major and a major in a liberal arts subject.  In order to successfully complete teacher preparation and gain a professional license, he or she must pass both the ETS PRAXIS II exam and submit a detailed study of his or her impact as a teacher in the form of Pearson’s EdTPA performance assessment.  Whether or not these requirements are appropriate is a wider conversation, but one thing is certain: the number of students available to even contemplate teaching as a career is smaller today than it was previously.  Higher selectivity might make sense in an environment with high retention of experienced teachers and where teaching is seen as a desirable profession.  As of right now, teacher preparation programs in New Jersey at least have to try to convince honors students to consider teaching in an environment where they see their own teachers suffering and scapegoated.  This is not a situation conducive to a sustainable number of teachers entering the profession.
  7. De-professionalization: The contradictions from Washington and from education reformers are legion.  We are told that teacher preparation must become more rigorous, but then we are told that we measure teacher effectiveness using test based measures which fail to actually capture what teachers do.  We are told that teachers must be thoroughly prepared to teach students to thrive in a complex modern economy and information environment, but more and more teachers work in environments where the testing has spawned narrowly scripted curricula that have to be implemented without professional judgement.  We see a broad coalition of partners from education reform and more traditional teaching advocates joining to “nenew” the profession with better and more in depth preparation, but within that coalition, Teach for America sees “no reason” to revisit their 5 week “training” model for corps members.  It is not hard to see that the current reform environment favors de-professionalization over  truly professional teachers.  The new DOE regulations insist upon student growth being tied back to the quality of teacher preparation, an inherent call for heavy reliance of standardized test data.  This opens the door for “highly effective” ratings to be lavished upon Relay “Graduate School of Education” which is largely in the business of training teachers in the methods of no excuses urban charter schools – high levels of behavioral control, heavily scripted curricula delivered as written, a heavy emphasis on preparing for the annual accountability tests, and relatively short “careers” in teaching.  Such methods may result in high value added for Relay’s graduates, but it is not likely to result in lifelong career teachers who retain professional autonomy and a robust vision of how teachers shape curriculum.

These challenges to teaching are robust, and, by now, they possess a frightening degree of inertia.  Together, they genuinely pose a threat to teaching as a profession that individuals pursue and commit to for a lifetime.  Our future teachers are watching what goes on in school today and are either developing a commitment to become teachers – or a desire to stay far away, dispositions towards the profession that will not be easy to turn.  Further, the increasing reliance on short time teachers granted credentials that emphasize high scores on standardized tests threatens to reinvent teaching into something that enthusiastic young people do for a short time before moving on to their “adult” lives.

A profession of many millions working with many tens of millions, however, does not turn quite so easily, as reformers have discovered over the past decade.  In order to redirect our efforts so that teaching can genuinely thrive, we need better ideas competing for time and attention.  Some ideas that demand our attention:

  1. Slay the Testing Beast: This does not mean doing away with any concept of standardized testing at all (although I know many advocates who wish for that).  It does mean, however, admitting once and for all what they cannot do.  Education reform has been adamant for 15 years that test data will first identify failing schools and provide them with incentives to improve and then that test data will objectively identify ineffective teachers and let us remove them so they harm no more children.  We know now that it has done no such thing, and that test-based accountability has created more problems than it has solved.  NCLB mandated testing has not told us about failing schools that we did not already know were struggling, and Race to the Top mandated growth measures have consistently failed to create evaluation systems that fairly identify teachers who should not be in the profession.  What they have done is wreak havoc on the curriculum, especially in communities of color, and restrict teachers’ professional autonomy.  Further, the tests have been used as rationales to privatize control of public education into hands that are inherently unaccountable to the communities they operate in and which increase costs and burdens for the remaining public schools. Instead of being a single, limited, tool of accountability, the tests have become the objects in and of themselves and rationales for “creative disruption” of a core democratic institution.
  2. If we are going to measure, be clear what we are measuring and why. Of course, teachers and schools should be accountable, but large standardized tests can only measure very narrow skill bands.  That’s a snapshot of a year’s worth of teaching, and often a poorly designed one that teachers do not get to see anyway.  At its best, such data can give higher level administrators an bird’s eye view of work across a school or a district, but it will not tell them what they find if they look closer.  There are schools with low test scores that are places of warmth and support but which need specific resources they are not getting.  There are schools with high test scores that are Dickensian nightmares of behavioral control and test preparation with little else.  There are also many different ways to define school success and until we acknowledge how limited test based measures are we are not going to give those concepts the attention they deserve.  Do schools with high poverty student populations work to develop their teachers?  Do they collaborate on problem solving for their students?  Are they well connected within the surrounding community?  Do they partner with local businesses, agencies, and organizations?  Do they actively reach out to parents and guardians?  Are they seeking grants and other opportunities for their academic programming?  Are the students happy and safe in the building?  There are many other ways to assess the work of schools and teachers if we can let go of the idea that only some measures are valid.
  3. Focus on retention and growth of teachers: Federal regulators and education reformers have been obsessed with creating a system that identifies the lowest ranked teachers via growth measures and then removes them from teaching.  Their tools are inadequate to the task and thoroughly miss that retention of experienced teachers is a far greater issue in the profession.  Experienced teachers are more effective than inexperienced teachers, and they provide a core of institutional and practice knowledge that both assists novices and cannot be easily replaced.  While meaningful supervision and assessment is important for novice teachers, it is at least as important to maintain our veterans.  If policy makers aimed their efforts at retention veteran teachers and establishing environments where teachers collaborate and support each other across experience levels, we would have a more stable core of teachers and teacher development in the early years would improve.
  4. Instead of attacking unions, develop administrators: It is almost religious dogma among education reformers that unions make it impossible to remove ineffective teachers.  This is false.  Unions do make it necessary for administrators to do their jobs well before removing a teacher with tenure, and the process may involve steps.  The benefit of this, however, is that experienced teachers are able to do their jobs without fear that they may face retaliation if they end up crossing an administrator.  What schools need are administrators who are adept instructional leaders and willing to engage in the process of removing a teacher when necessary.  What they absolutely do not need are teachers who have no confidence that they can speak up on the job in defense of their students.
  5. Healthy, collaborative schools work better for all: Even before the BATs/AFT workplace survey, we knew that the environment in a school is crucial.  Schools where teachers collaborate to help their children and which are led by administrators interested in substantive work centered on real learning are positive environments for student learning and for teacher growth.  Schools typified by isolated teachers subjected to micromanagement from rigid administrators are not.  Schools under pressure to meet unmanageable expectations generally do not foster the former.  While accountability proponents may be right to expect schools to work towards improvement, it is crucial that we seek to enable the conditions that make that improvement possible.
  6. Remember the teacher pipeline: It is all well and good that many advocates want to make it harder to become a teacher, but when narrowing that pipeline they need to remember two important considerations:  First, we need about 3 million teachers in the country at any given time, so while there is merit to improving teacher’s pay as requirements go up, there is a ceiling to that due to basic labor economics.  Second, if we are not going to be able to raise teacher pay to attract college students who have other career options, we have to foster those aspects of the profession that attract people beyond fame and money.  Historically, people have been attracted to the “psychic rewards” of teaching, those aspects of the work that develop a sense of efficacy and evidence of having done good in the world.  Such rewards are evident to potential teachers in schools where their own teachers are treated well, have professional autonomy, collaborate with each other, and are valued beyond what test scores they can generate.  Unless we pay careful attention to the vision of teaching as a profession that we project, we will have a terrible time convincing a new generation to pursue it.
  7. Pay up: It hurts the ears of politicians who do not want to consider tax increases, but education is not cheap, and it remains underfunded in many ways.  For example, when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in the 1970s, it promised states that the federal government would pick up 40% of the cost of serving the children entitled to services under the act.  It has never done better than 20% of the costs, and the latest effort to fully fund education for the disabled sits in committee in the waning days of the 114th Congress.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has openly mocked increased education funding, but his state remains $3.9 billion behind promised state funding annuallyShockingly poor school conditions can be found in urban districts like Detroit, but more than half of our nation’s aging schools need repairs and capital improvements.
  8. Refocus on equity: For 33 years, education policy has focused on increasing standards and accountability with an intense focus on test based accountability since 2001.  But during this time period, we have largely forgotten one of the most historically powerful enablers of teachers’ teaching and students’ learning: equity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, federal policy aimed opening school to more students and enabling states and municipalities to serve these student populations, but since 1980, we have demanded more results from teachers and schools while failing to accept any responsibility for the well being of the children we send to those schools.  David Berliner noted this powerfully a decade ago:  “We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.”  If we want schools and teachers to be fully capable partners in raising children up, we need to accept that we cannot kick the ladders out from under those same children and blame teachers when they do not catch them all.

It is past time to change our focus.

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, John King, Media, Pearson, politics, Shared Posts, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Why Are Education Activists Walking to Albany?

For more than a week, a small but determined group of public school advocates, have undertaken an ambitious and heartfelt journey: a walk of 150 miles from New York City to Albany to deliver a message.  That message?  Pay up.  After ten years of delays, excuses, cuts, and broken promises, it is past time for lawmakers and the governor to fully fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement that was decided in 2006.  That landmark ruling, itself the result of 13 years of advocacy and litigation, found that the state was failing its obligation to provide schools with the resources they needed for all children to have a “sound basic education.”  Between 2007 and 2009, the state worked out a new foundational aid formula and committed to increasing school aid across the state by 5.5 billion dollars a year.

Today, Albany remains $3.9 billion short of that goal.  Every year.  Ten years after the court ruled that increased aid was necessary.  So activists are walking from the steps of Tweed Courthouse in New York City to Albany to deliver the bill:

Albany has not always been so stubbornly unwilling to pay the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) settlement.  In fact, immediately after the settlement, Albany rewrote the aid formula and began to phase in the additional money, increasing state aid to schools by 2.3 billion dollars.  Unfortunately, twin crises for education in the Empire State struck nearly simultaneously.  The first was the Great Recession which narrowed state tax revenues and threw the budget out of balance.  This was unavoidable given the nature of the fiscal crisis across the entire country.  The second crisis was the election of Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2010.  This was probably avoidable although it was an open question at the time about just how horrible the governor would be.

Beginning with Governor Cuomo’s predecessor, Governor David Patterson, New York embarked on a two year budget overhaul aimed at reducing state spending by $5 billion in only two years without considering tax increases.  State aid to education took an immediate hit both in the total amount allocated and in the form of an accounting gimmick called the Gap Elimination Adjustment.  Using the GEA, Albany could announce a school aid budget but then take some of that money back from communities if state revenues were too low.  According to the New York State School Boards Association, by the 2014 school year, this policy, continued by Governor Andrew Cuomo, had cost the state’s schools over $8.5 billion of total aid, or more than $3 million per district per year.  Additionally,  Governor Cuomo pushed through a property tax cap early in his first term that has squeezed districts from the other side,  limiting the revenue they can raise locally.  While state aid to school has crept up over time, it was only in this year’s budget address that he suggested ending the GEA by increasing state aid over a two year window.  The effect of that is apparently a wash – ending the continued poaching of school aid to plug the rest of the budget but making no actual progress towards meeting CFE obligations.

While the Patterson budgets may have cut out of response to an acute crisis (although the refusal to consider tax increases may have made that crisis worse), Andrew Cuomo has no such excuse and hasn’t for years.  He simply prefers keeping taxes low over paying for the educational outcomes he demands from teachers and schools.  He also prefers to keep promised aid in reserve to demand policy concessions on education during the budget process even though education policy in New York resides with the Board of Regents.  In his 2015 budget address, he promised an increase in state aid of over a billion dollars – but only if his absolutely dreadful test and punish teacher evaluation priorities were enacted within the budget.  It appears that to Andrew Cuomo, the CFE settlement is not an agreement reached in court and legislated by the Assembly and Senate; rather, it is a lever that he can use to push through major changes in education policy without having to use proper channels.

Worse still, Governor Cuomo is a proponent of one of the worst habits among executives and legislators who are more interested in cutting spending than in quality education.  Call it “enoughism” if you will.  According to this point of view, if a governor or lawmaker can point to a nominally large amount of money, he can say that it is evident that we spend “enough” because the amount of money is, again, large. Cuomo made this very clear in 2014 when he said, “We spend more than any other state in the country.  It ain’t about the money. It’s about how you spend it – and the results.”

The attraction of this reasoning is obvious.  States spend nominally large sums on public education.  If you are having trouble keeping your budget in balance and have ruled out increased taxes, trimming that sum is a tremendous temptation.  Further, the number is likely to be large enough to impress constituents.  The 2016 budget recommendations from the Cuomo administration called for $24.22 billion in school aid.  In anybody’s personal experience that is a tremendous amount of money, and it averages out to $9,131 per K-12 student in the state.  Once you add on local revenue and various federal sources for education, and you get a statewide average above $19,000 per student each year.

Is that enough?

The answer to that question is dependent not upon the amount spent, as Governor Cuomo insists, but upon what needs to be spent to meet the requirement of a quality education for every child- which is an entirely different question.  Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University has been consistent and clear on this in New York: 1) New York’s estimate on the need was lowballed and then underfunded; 2) New York’s school financing system is inequitable; 3) This has had tangible detrimental impacts, especially in small cities upstate; 4) These detrimental impacts have fed into an accountability system that punishes districts already struggling.  In fact, Dr. Baker found that most of the districts consistently criticized by the governor for poor performance are also the most underfunded districts.

It isn’t enough to simply look at large numbers and declare that they are “enough” by virtue of being large.  You have to identify the actual cost of doing the work properly and evaluate your spending from that starting point.

Dr. Baker’s analysis is technical, but it is unlikely that any New York parents of school aged children have not noticed the struggles in their districts. $3 million a year in GEA funding cuts compounded over 7 years alone is a huge impact even without accounting for the missing foundational aid.  In some New York City schools, parents are asked to raise funds so their schools can hire reading intervention specialists.  Some schools might be able to use Federal Title I funds for such essential personnel, but there is no guarantee, and besides, literacy is a core academic mission of K-12 schooling.  It is fairly obvious that when any school has to fund raise for reading teachers that basic funding is inadequate and that a rich program including the arts and languages and science will suffer.  This is a story that is replicated daily across the Empire State, and especially in schools where parents cannot possibly raise half a million dollars in a single year.

Governor Cuomo’s office has called the 150 mile walk to Albany a “stunt.” It is anything but.  It is a reminder that our elected officials in Albany have had ten years to fulfill a promise to New York’s children. Enough is enough.

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Filed under classrooms, Funding, New York Board of Regents, politics, Social Justice

A Word If You Please, Governor Christie

We are a month into the 2016-2017 school year in New Jersey.  Public school children across the Garden State have met their new teachers and learned the expectations for the year.  My teacher friends (many of whom are former students) have set up their classrooms, welcomed their students, and begun the long process of getting to know the young people in their care and helping them learn.  In many of these schools, veteran teachers have welcomed student teachers as well, slowly giving them more responsibility as they begin the most intensive part of their preparation to become licensed teachers themselves.  After years of studying both pedagogy and content, of combining that knowledge in planning for both learning and assessment of learning, and of demonstrating their combined skills in supervised field placements, these young people are ready to take the final steps on their journeys.

In my own classes, I have had the great pleasure of welcoming the Class of 2020 to their first class in our teacher preparation program.  I have to be honest: after 23 years of teaching at every level from seventh grade to graduate school classes, this is my favorite time of any year.  My students are both excited and nervous, and they are only just beginning to learn what it means to become a teacher.  After thousands and thousands of hours of watching teachers teach, they have a great deal to learn about what goes into that work that they never saw, and they will have to learn how to translate their passion for their content and for learning into effective teaching.  They also happen to be great people, a conclusion I draw basically every year.  My students are bright, passionate, diligent, incredibly hard working, selfless, and they are giving up many of the traditional distractions of college life for their chosen profession.  This time with us in university based teacher preparation is really a gift.  Sandwiched between their thirteen years in K-12 classrooms and their future decades of work in a profession of millions, we have four short years to help them get their career journey off to a great start.

So I really have to ask you, Governor Christie:  Exactly from where do you think our future teachers are going to come?

This is no idle question at this point.  Concerns about the teacher pipeline have been brewing for some time, and while the phenomenon is complex, there is also no doubt that we’ve made it much harder for young people to imagine a positive future as a teacher:

And we have to admit that Governor Chris Christie has been a leader in this trend since he began his time in office.  Chris Christie ran for office promising teachers to leaves their pensions alone, a promise he swiftly broke with a pension reform bill that he has steadfastly refused to fund – even as he turned the state’s pension fund over to Wall Street buddies who tripled fees without improving returns.  Governor Christie slashed school aid and has never fully restored it, leaving districts underfunded according to the state’s own school aid law.

While financial esoterica may escape the attention of today’s school children – although the cumulative impact of $6 billion of lost funding surely has an impact – Governor Christie’s continued and vicious attacks on the Garden State’s teachers is impossible to ignore.  Governor Christie plainly hates the New Jersey Education Association, having opened his failed candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination by saying NJEA needs to be “punched in the face,”  but the governor takes that hatred out in public on any teacher who dares to stand up for her profession while he slathers contempt upon the state’s schools and teachers.  Governor Christie has accused the state’s teachers of using their students like “drug mules” for a civics lesson, and he has whined that the NJEA claimed that he hates children for a fairly mild billboard:

NJEA billboard 2011

He has screamed at a teacher in public for daring to question him:

Christie Yells Again

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers’ Public Esteem Again

And he has pretty much consistently disparaged teachers as doing a terrible job and implying the 180 day official school year means they have pretty cushy jobs compared to other professionals:

So even by Chris Christie’s appalling standards, his “welcome message” for the 2016-2017 school year was almost shocking.  After a summer where New Jersey’s teachers and students found out that the PARCC examination will become the sole test accepted for completion of high school and that 30% of teacher evaluations will be tied to discredited value added measures based on those tests, Governor Christie held an hour long rant where he signed some education legislation – and compared New Jersey’s teacher union to the Corleone family.  Clearly not satisfied with mere insults, he has gone on to press New Jersey’s Supreme Court to let him and his education commissioner – he’s on his fifth one since David Hespe quit shortly before the mafia comments – to break labor agreements and state law at will in the state’s Abbott Districts.  These are the poorest districts in the state that the state is required to give supplemental funding  – and which Governor Christie wants to throw under the literal bus by seizing that funding so he can make good on a long broken promise of property tax relief for the suburbs.

Let’s be crystal clear on this:  Governor Christie wants to be freed from the various Abbott decisions and the legal requirement that Trenton give supplemental funding to the state’s neediest students.  And at the same time, he wants the state Supreme Court to allow him to rule those same districts he plans to defund by breaking contracts at will and ignoring state tenure laws.  S0 – he doesn’t want to pay AND he wants to break contracts and rules on his say so with no accountability.

I guess all the time he has been spending with Donald Trump, who has a track record of not paying bills and stiffing people in contracts, has really rubbed off on New Jersey’s Governor.

Which brings me back to my question again:  From where does Governor Christie expect the future teachers in New Jersey to come?  Those future teachers are currently in New Jersey’s K-12 schools watching a governor compare their teachers to organized criminals and proposing to make vast swaths of them into at will employees while criminally underfunding their schools.  They have been watching him for a good portion of their K-12 education as he’s slashed school funding statewide and insulted the work ethic of teachers in every corner of the state.  They’ve watched as he’s lashed out at anyone who dares to question his rhetoric about teachers.  They watched as he’s forced more and more emphasis on state tests and as he cruelly derided a bill meant to guarantee that our youngest children have recess.

Paradoxically, Governor Christie’s administration has made it harder to become a teacher in New Jersey, increasing the GPA for prospective teachers and expanding student teaching to a full year experience.  In addition, entering candidates must either pass a “basic skills” assessment or be in the top third of SAT or ACT test takers, and in addition to the traditional licensure exam upon graduation, candidates will have to pass EdTPA, an external performance assessment that costs $300 each time it is submitted.

Whether or not these are good or bad ideas is open for debate, but what is not open for debate is that Governor Christie is raising the bar substantially on who is even allowed to begin teacher training in New Jersey in the middle of an environment where he has derided the state’s teachers for years and where he is demanding the ability to both slash school funding and deny urban teachers their contracts as he sees fit.  Jersey Jazzman astutely observes that these proposals will be of significant cost to New Jersey’s teachers of color, who disproportionately work in the Abbott districts, but nobody should assume that Governor Christie would settle for merely breaking the NJEA in the cities.  He wants to be Scott Walker on the Delaware, and it will probably have similar consequences if he succeeds.

And we’re supposed to try to convince the top third of New Jersey’s high school students to become teachers under these circumstances.

hermione_eye_roll

Like I said – my students are passionate and dedicated.  They love school.  They love students.  They love their subjects.  Whether or not that love can be sustained and whether or not future students will have enough love to even consider teaching is an open question.

 

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Filed under Drumpf, Funding, Pearson, politics, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, Unions

This Was The Summer of Charter School Discontent

As summer gives way to Fall, it is worth taking note how shifts, both subtle and substantial, are changing the ground on which charter school advocates fight for more of our public education system.  This is not what they are used to.  Backed by billionaire financing, using that money to pull the Democratic Party towards education policies more typical of the Republican Party, calling in favors from elected officials who owe their donors, getting unfettered and poorly monitored largess from the federal government, permitted to engage in practices that would land any public school district in a federal civil rights lawsuit, and existing in a regulatory environment that is charitably described as “permissive,” charter schools and their advocates are used to owning the conversation…and pretty much getting their way.

Slowly — but possibly steadily — that is changing.

An early blow actually came last November when current Democratic Party nominee for President Hillary Clinton was campaigning and made an entirely factual observation about the charter school sector as a whole:

“Most charter schools — I don’t want to say every one — but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.”

There is literally nothing inaccurate about that observation.  Self selection helps charter schools in general with their student population, and many flatly rig their supposedly open lottery processes.  The attrition rates at many charter schools, especially ones that apply incredibly narrow disciplinary regimes to their students, are well established, and the enrollment and financial impacts of these practices on host districts are also well known.  Every observation she made in that comment was fundamentally true.

Which did not stop major charter school advocates from lamenting her statement.  The pro-charter and hedge fund backed group “Democrats” for Education Reform (DFER) immediately released a response saying, it was “highly disappointing and seemed to reinforce fears about how her endorsements from both major teachers unions would affect her K-12 platform.”  This is the same DFER that enthusiastically responded to Secretary Clinton’s campaign announcement, but which apparently has problems with her suggesting that charter schools be held to the same standards as fully public schools and doesn’t want anyone noting how quickly many charter operators purge themselves of students with disabilities, with behavioral needs, or with second language learning needs.

Since then, Secretary Clinton seems to have tried a bit of a pivot, saving her most negative comments for so-called “for profit” charter schools, which, to be fair, are a general disaster zone of a sector.  However, as Peter Greene rightly noted in July, this is a distinction in desperate search of a difference.  An actual charter school can be a non-profit entity run by a for profit charter management organization (CMO).  A non-profit CMO can contract exclusively with for profit vendors that the CMO operators have a financial interest in.  Real estate plays abound in the charter school sector, and various investment arrangements allow guaranteed returns for large financial firms.  Operating as a not for profit also doesn’t stop charter school administrators from paying themselves extravagantly from the public money they receive.

In fact, these very issues were at the heart of a Last Week Tonight segment by John Oliver.  The comedian and social critic was blistering.  While explicitly avoiding the debate over the existence of charters and carefully noting that he was looking at the problems associated with a poorly regulated sector taking public funds, Mr. Oliver looked at financial scandals and fraud in charter schools across the country:

This level of scrutiny has been sorely lacking over the quarter century of charter school growth and promotion, but Mr. Oliver was specific and devastating, looking at schools that suddenly shut down without warning, crooked financial arrangements, questionable charter school applications, and oversight laws allowing administrators to select their own non-profit organizations as the legal overseer of their owns charters.  Consider the quote in this screen shot warning parents in Philadelphia what to do before selecting a charter school:

philly

Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

But the charter sector is still only in the denial stage of grieving, so, despite Mr. Oliver’s careful framing of his examination of fraud and mismanagement, the pro-charter Center for Center for Education Reform announced a $100,000 contest called “Hey, John Oliver, Back Off My Charter School!” I wish every public school district in the country had a spare hundred grand laying around for something like this.

The pro-charter camp also suffered set backs at the Democratic National Convention this summer when the education portion of the platform was amended with language explicitly supporting democratically governed public schools and making some actual demands of charter schools:

“We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.”

It is hard to imagine anyone having a problem with this, so, of course, Shavar Jeffries of “Democrats” for Education Reform laced into the changes saying that the platform had been hijacked by the national teachers’ unions, and DFER tried, unsuccessfully, to block the language.  The lack of total obsequiousness from elected Democrats must have been very shocking to them.

However, the most difficult blow to absorb must have been from the NAACP. The venerable civil rights organization, sometimes an ally in education reform during the No Child Left Behind era, called for a general moratorium on privately managed charter schools – in effect, all of them.  The resolution cited the fact that charter boards accept public money but lack democratic accountability, that charter schools are contributing to increased segregation, that punitive disciplinary policies are disproportionately used in charter schools as well as other practices that violate students’ rights, that there is a pattern of fraud of mismanagement in the sector in general, and it then called for opposition to privatization of education, opposed diversion of funding from public schools, called for full funding for quality public education, called for legislation granting parents access to charter school boards and to strengthen oversight, called for charter schools to follow USDOJ and USDOE guidelines on student discipline and to help parents file complaints when those guidelines are violated, opposed efforts to weaken oversight, and called for a moratorium on charter school growth.  Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig defended the resolution, saying that education reformers have only offered top-down and privatized solutions and that choices can be community based.

Dr. Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University explained the importance of the resolution clearly:

Civil Rights workers were concerned first and foremost with the eradication of legal policies or structures like separate but equal that resulted in inequality. This mirrors the cornerstone of the NAACP’s current call for a moratorium on charter schools. They do not claim that all charters are bad, as some commentators have suggested, but declare that the unchecked proliferation of such schools represents a real danger to communities of color. They expressed concern about the dearth of evidence proving their effectiveness and deplore the resulting segregation they often produce. Most importantly, they question the equity of diverting public funds to support private enterprises. As the NAACP rightly observed, “[Charter schools] do not represent the public yet make decisions about how public funds are spent [and have] contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system.”

This is really the crux of the problem. The Civil Rights Movement was about inclusivity, while those who appropriate its language to buttress corporate education reform do so largely in support of programs that promote exclusivity at the public’s expense.

I find it difficult to emphasize this enough. For more than a decade and half, education reformers – backed by powerful philanthropies and funded by PACs funneling dark money from billionaires – have attempted to co-opt the language of civil rights.  They have used the plight of children of color who attend schools that are deliberately segregated and criminally underfunded to justify, as Dr. Denisha Jones explains, privatizing schools, setting up “choice” systems where schools choose children, and offering barely trained, infinitely replaceable teachers for children of color.  The NAACP resolution calls for a full pause in that agenda and recognizes it as antithetical to civil rights.

Of course, reformers could not stay silent on the matter.  Secretary of Education and former charter school head Dr. John King chartersplained that there should not be any “artificial barriers” to charter schools calling them “drivers of opportunity.”  Various African American led school choice groups pushed back on the resolution as well.  Self-proclaimed “most trusted educator in America” Dr. Steve Perry took a blunter approach on social media, calling the NAACP platform “anti-Black”:

And former Assistant Secretary of Education Peter Cunningham continued his efforts to use millions of dollars in seed money to build a “better conversation” by blaming the whole drubbing that charter schools have suffered this past summer on AFT President Randi Weingarten:

Mr. Cunningham is also referencing a suit in Washington state against the charter school sector that was working its way through the courts at the time – charters in Washington lost, with the state Supreme Court ruling that the state’s charter school law violated the state Constitution.

Of course, charter schools are in no danger of folding up shop and going away (although the faster that virtual charter schools which even charter advocates cannot defend just die already the better).  There are billions of dollars in public funds still up for grabs, and numerous ways to monetize public education.  Despite their complaints at hearing actual criticism, it is unlikely that charter schools would face an implacable foe in a Clinton administration as much as they’d face an ally telling them to behave better.  Charter school advocates are pouring money into a fight to convince Massachusetts voters that their already best in the nation school system needs unlimited charter schools — painting itself as a progressive cause when it is funded mostly by the same conservative groups – DFER, New Schools Venture Fund, billionaire donors – behind school privatization everywhere else.  They might win that one, but, for the moment, they are in unexpected territory and feeling defensive.

That’s long past due.

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Filed under charter schools, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Hillary Clinton, John King, politics, Social Justice

New Jersey <3's PARCC

Garden State teachers and students returned to school this month to find that both the state board of education and department of education have declared undying love and devotion to the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  The decisions, made when presumably fewer people were looking, first enshrined the controversial assessments as the sole standardized exam accepted to meet graduation requirements for New Jersey high school students beginning in 2021, and for extra measure the state tripled the weight that those exams will play in teacher evaluations beginning this year.  It was a very busy summer for questionable examinations and discredited evaluations.

New Jersey has long required students to pass either a basic competency test or one of a range of tests used in the college application process in order to graduate, allowing students to assemble a portfolio of grades and other materials if an adequate test score is not recorded after attempting the exams.  This layered approach to a testing requirement made sense when applied to the entirety of the state.  After all, the requirement is to find a minimum level of competency required to graduate, so the logical option would be to give students different ways of demonstrating that competency and being certain that you are looking for what can be reasonably expected for students graduating from the state’s 586 school districts.  Moreover, it is a nod to simple reality:  high school students do not, as a whole, care a lot about proficiency exams administered as part of state accountability systems, although students with college ambitions have plenty of reasons to care about SAT, ACT, or advanced placement exams that carry actual personal consequences.  Washington D.C.’s Wilson High School saw this very phenomenon this year where students openly admitted that they skipped or ignored the PARCC exams to focus on advanced placement tests scheduled for the following week.

New Jersey will have none of that now.  By making PARCC the sole examination allowed for graduation, the state is telling all high school students they must take the state’s accountability exam seriously or face the possibility of not graduating.  It is also aiming directly at New Jersey’s Opt Out movement which, while not the same force across the Hudson in New York, still boasted tens of 1000s of students refusing PARCC with 15% of 11th graders refusing the exams in 2015.  That option will be vastly more problematic beginning in 2021, and parents who considered opting out in younger grades could easily be intimidated into not making that decision.  New Jersey’s rationale for making PARCC the sole manner for meeting graduation requirements seems aimed primarily at forcing reluctant students and families to take PARCC seriously.  As policy, this is a lot of stick with very little carrot.

It might also be illegal.  Sarah Blaine, an education activist, blogger, and attorney, wrote cogently back in May that the new regulations seem to contradict the law they intend to implement.  The state is required to administer a test for all students in 11th grade, and that test must “measure those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society: specifically, the test must measure the reading, writing, and computational skills students must demonstrate as minimum requirements for high school graduation.”  Ms. Blaine notes that the 10th grade ELA test will not be given to all 11th graders statewide by definition.  Further, she correctly notes that the content in the Algebra I test is taken by many New Jersey students as early as junior high school, leaving them in the ridiculous position of securing their “minimum” competency in math before they have even enrolled in high school.

Ms. Blaine was also correct when she noted that the state testing requirement only allows the state to deny a diploma to a student who does not meet the minimum basic skills — and the PARCC exam is, by design, not a measure of those skills at the 4 and 5 cut score levels.  This cannot be emphasized enough:  whatever else PARCC aims to measure, it is obvious from both available content and the results themselves that it is not an examination of grade level basic competenceNew Jersey boasted some significant improvements from the 2015 PARCC administration in 2016 (some of which might be explained by increased participation); the percentage of students scoring 4 or 5 on the 10th grade ELA exam was 44.4% compared to 36.6% in 2015, and the percentage of students scoring that on the Algebra I exam was 41.2% compared to 35% in 2015.  These gains are significant but would still leave more than half of New Jersey high school students ineligible to graduate.  Commissioner Hespe claims “Those are areas we know we have work to do,” but given that PARCC in 2015 pretty closely matched New Jersey’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)…

NJ NAEP AND PARCC

…and given that NAEP proficiency levels are not meant to measure minimum grade level expectations, the Commissioner can promise to work all he wants…he’s working with an examination whose proficiency levels are looking for and labeling advanced students.  We can have a very fruitful and important conversation about the unequal distribution of students scoring at those levels and about the unequal distributions of educational opportunity in the state – but not while threatening to withhold high school diplomas simply because students are not getting straight As.

Increasing the percentage of teacher evaluations based on test scores from 10% to 30% was always a threat waiting in the wings, but it remains a giant blunder of an idea.  New Jersey decreased its Student Growth Percentile (SGP) component in deference to the newness of PARCC in the Garden State, but increased familiarity with the exam does not mean that the bulk of the evidence is in favor of using growth measures to evaluate teachers.  If you like the expression “arbitrary and capricious,” you will enjoy the next 3-5 years in New Jersey as the state tries to fend off lawsuits from teachers inappropriately labeled as ineffective due to SGPs and as it tries (and likely fails) to explain why SGPs that more effectively measure student characteristics than teacher effectiveness should be used in evaluating teachers.  Fans of legal briefs should be popping the popcorn sometime next Spring.

Predicting the future is not exactly easy.  New Jersey’s $108 million contract with Pearson to administer PARCC has two years left, by which time Governor Chris Christie will no longer be in Trenton.  For that matter, PARCC’s long term health is legitimately in question.  The consortium web site no longer boasts a map of states using the exam on its homepage because in 2011, they were able to boast of 25 participating states that “collectively educate more than 31 million public K-12 students in the United States, over 60% of all students enrolled in the nation’s public schools.”  In the 2015-2016 school year, they had “eight fully participating states” and now offer a “tiered approach” for non-participating states to access PARCC content.  I’m not taking bets on PARCC dying any time soon, but I wouldn’t suggest anyone place similar bets on it surviving either.

One prediction is pretty simple, however.  In New Jersey, PARCC will become a de facto curriculum and disrupt even more children’s education.  We have seen this over and over again in the No Child Left Behind era, and while the new federal education law grants states more flexibility on how they use accountability testing, New Jersey has chosen to double down on the test and punish policies of the past 15 years.  School children in New Jersey, especially those in struggling districts, will get less science, less social studies, less art and music, and our youngest children will get a lot less play – and far more test preparation.   The Class of 2021 will begin ninth grade algebra in a little less than a year, and a substantial percentage of those taking the course will find out that they do not qualify to graduate after only one year of high school and will scramble to repeat the exam (at whose expense?) or assemble other evidence of their “basic competence” for the Commissioner to review.  The state DOE will take certain districts to the wood shed for plummeting graduation rates, and various parent coalitions will sue over the use of a test that violates the letter and spirit of the law as a graduation requirement.  My bet for the next few years in New Jersey?

fasten-your-seatbelts-o

“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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Filed under Chris Christie, classrooms, Common Core, ESSA, Opt Out, PARCC, Pearson, standards, Testing, VAMs

You Bet My Classroom is a “Safe Space”

This week I have the pleasure of meeting the Class of 2020 who just began their 4 year journeys to become teachers.  They join us at a very particular time in our national dialogue, such as it is, on inclusiveness and diversity.  We are four years into a movement demanding awareness of the interaction between African Americans, police, and the rest of society – and calling for substantial change on those fronts.  We are in a Presidential election where one of our historic great political parties has nominated a candidate whose campaign traffics openly in racism and xenophobia and has hired  a champion of forces ridiculing inclusiveness into the campaign.  A great deal of push and pull about what kind of society we are and what kind of discussions about ourselves are even possible is afoot.

And, into that environment, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago has told incoming students that the institution does not condone “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings.”

The welcome letter from the dean explained to incoming students the intellectual history and tradition at University of Chicago:

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.  Civility and mutual respect are vital to us all, and freedom of expression does not mean freedom to harass or threaten others.  You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.  At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Without irony at all, I think this is excellent.  As a statement of principles for a liberal education grounded in the best traditions of inquiry and debate, I could hardly imagine better wording, and I would applaud seeing this paragraph widely disseminated.  It speaks to the vital importance of ideas facing scrutiny, previously held assumptions facing challenge, and intellectual growth in an environment predicated on respect and rigor.  It would serve many more institutions to make such statements about the nature of discourse on their campuses and to embrace similar principles.

Which is why what followed that paragraph was distressingly unnecessary and appears rooted in the worst misconceptions about efforts to expand inclusiveness in the Academy.  Having made a clear statement about the need for inquiry and debate that it both challenging and respectful, the Dean wrote:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger-warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

This paragraph has fostered a fairly wide ranging debate with many coming out both in support and in dismay at the wording.  The letter appears to be responding to a Straw Millennial who embodies the worst stereotypes of his or her generation as fragile and incapable of dealing with anything but affirmation.  Worse, the letter seems to assume that trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to allow students to avoid any material they wish rather than to facilitate their engagement with such material in the classroom and to provide additional venues with clearly defined purposes aligned with been historically marginalized experiences within academia.  I do not object, per se, to the commitment to invited speakers, although one has to wonder the reason for its inclusion.  Yes, there are examples of organized students in the country calling for speaking engagements to be rescinded, but I should not have to remind the University of Chicago that the plural of anecdote is not “data,” nor should the wider phenomenon of students organizing protests around certain speakers be confounded with disinviting those speakers.  Protests, editorials, and teach ins are, in fact, entirely within the intellectual realm the dean outlined in the statement about University of Chicago’s academic tradition and commitment to academic freedom.

The statement did not ban trigger warnings and safe spaces, although with the Dean of Students saying the University does not “support” or “condone” them, one wonders how probationary faculty will find themselves constrained to either use trigger warnings or advise student groups.  However, the statement does invoke literally the worst possible interpretation of those terms as antithetical to an environment of academic freedom and rigorous debate, and that is completely unnecessary.  Offering a trigger warning for extremely challenging content is not inherently about avoiding that content; it is about recognizing that people have experiences that can make that content far more personal and challenging for them than for others.  It is about adequate preparation rather than avoidance.  Consider a professor in a modern film class airing The Accused.  Is it unreasonable to warn students, some of whom may have been sexually assaulted themselves, that the movie contains a gang rape scene?  It is certainly unreasonable to assume that an 18 year old today knows the plot details of a movie from 1988, but it is entirely reasonable to assume that the scene is widely disturbing to all audiences and especially troubling for a class member who has been raped.  Consider a contemporary American history class studying the birth of the second Klan and the Red Summer of 1919.  These are events not often well studied in high school courses, and they fundamentally challenge many students’ perceptions of American history.  Students in the majority may have very little knowledge of how deeply White Supremacy is embedded in our history and of the brutal violence it used to enforce white dominance, and students of color may very well have family history inextricably linked to these events.  Is it out of the norm to show personal care for all students by letting them know how difficult this material will be for them – or does it enable them to more thoroughly engage in the material?

The dean’s letter is written from the assumption that a trigger warning is a tool of avoidance rather than a method of preparation.  That assumption is unnecessary.  And by naming it as something the University does not support, many instructors, especially those without tenure, may end up with less freedom in their teaching.

The statement about safe spaces is equally troubling because, in very real ways, it is not possible for universities to engage in academic inquiry without safe spaces of various kinds. The entire structure of disciplinary study is premised on the acceptance that certain subjects are off topic in various disciplines and that faculty have both authority and a responsibility to shape discourse in the courses along those lines. I can imagine no biology course at any reputable university that would accept Kenneth Hamm enrolling in that class and demanding significant time be given for Biblical creation. Similarly, I cannot imagine that Richard Dawkins would be given free rein in a course on Islam to insist that his increasingly anti-Muslim ideas become the major focus of the class. There are lines between legitimate and illegitimate inquiry within different disciplines, and while all courses should have room for robust discussion and disagreement, they do not have room for fully derailing the content of the class. A Shakespeare course is about the works of William Shakespeare. A course on African American history is about the history of Americans of African descent. This is as true at University of Chicago as it is anywhere else in academia.

Beyond the classroom, however, the Dean’s letter is contradicted by the University of Chicago itself. There are over 350 recognized student organizations at the University of Chicago, and it is without question that large numbers of them meet any reasonable definition of a safe space for students who share interests and experiences and desire a place to meet and interact with like-minded students. Does the Christians on Campus organization have to open up its Bible study meetings to people wanting to debate the existence of God? Do the College Republicans and University of Chicago Democrats get to control the agendas and topics of their own meetings around their shared ideological interests? Does Hillel help Jewish students follow Halachic dietary requirements? Do I even need to ask? Of course they do, because there is no significant question about the validity of those groups to set and determine their own focus.

But University of Chicago also has student organizations that are more likely to be associated with safe space debates within academia. Among recognized student groups, are organizations for women in the sciences, African Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community.   Assuming those groups are allowed to set their agendas, moderate their own meetings, determine what is on and off topic for a discussion, and do everything that all other student groups get to do, then the university absolutely “condones” safe spaces. While many critics of higher education may not approve of giving this privilege to people historically marginalized within academia, it is obvious that University of Chicago does not have a blanket problem with these student organizations, so it is objectively untrue for the Dean of Students to say the institution does not “condone” them. The Dean may be under the impression that “safe spaces” only exist to allow students to “retreat” from disagreement, but that impression does not make it true.

Perhaps the Dean of Students has a completely biased idea of what these terms mean and wanted to discourage incoming students from seeking them out despite the fact that the university obviously embraces many aspects of them. Perhaps the goal is based in alarm at various anecdotes of alleged threats to open discourse – threats that are frequently far more overblown than reality – and a hope to head off any such incidents at University of Chicago. I honestly do not know, but it is fairly obvious that the paragraph was unnecessary for affirming the university’s admirable goals of academic freedom – and that it is actually contradicted by the actual climate at the institution.

In my own classroom, I frankly hope that I am sufficiently embracing the concepts of a safe space for my students. The students I have met this week are taking an introductory course on the history of, purposes, and current issues in American education. Although they have been in school for 13 years, it is typical for most of them to want to be teachers but to have never critically examined the education system they wish to serve. After all, in many ways school is like air for them – always there, extremely important, but rarely thought about very deeply. In this course, my students will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of what John Goodlad meant when he endorsed the vision of teachers practicing “good stewardship” and learn what it means to use equity as a tool to promote opportunity. Doing so will require a genuinely critical and open minded examination of our educational history, both positive advances and legacies of intolerance. We will explore how legislation and litigation have expanded opportunity in our schools, and how legacies like segregation, attempts to wipe out Native American culture, and the horrific abuse of the disabled have played out and continue to play out in our schools. For some of my students these issues will be connected to personal and family experiences. For others, these will be new issues, largely hidden in their previous education.

In order to engage with these issues, my students absolutely need a safe space. They will need to know that their experiences will be considered valid whether those experiences are “typical” or not. They will need to know that they will have supportive and empathetic classmates and instructors as they think about new ideas that may thoroughly challenge their worldviews or which may recall painful family and personal histories. They will need to know that they can push themselves, and, more importantly, that they make mistakes without incurring unbearable cost.  Personal and intellectual growth can occur in an educational environment that takes no care for the well being of its students, but it is more likely to happen in spite of that environment rather than because of it.  Absent the qualities mentioned above, learners far too often retreat to well known pathways for “success” – seeking out and repeating approved of answers whether they believe in them or not.  Worse, dominant mythologies that discount the full spectrum of human experience can remain entirely unchallenged.

This is entirely compatible with being “engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement,” and it is compatible with students finding themselves both challenged and discomfited.  I would argue that within the classroom, safe space attributes are actually vital to and enable the kind of discourse valued at University of Chicago.  I will certainly strive to enact them.

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